The Myth of Flow

Photo of fountain pens, notebooks and a vase of flowers on a wooden table.

I first started taking my writing seriously in 2006 after spectacularly walking out of my day job. I had one week of day care that was already paid for, and after that my day job would become parenting two pre-schoolers. Any writing would happen while they were sleeping.

A novel had been developing inside me for almost a year. I worked in a brewery and, inside my head, I plotted out a mystery novel set in a brewery as I went about my day. (Creepy? I guess so. But I’m a crime writer. It’s what we do.) I knew the victim, I knew the killer, I knew the clues. All I needed was time to write.

But now, suddenly, I had that time. Five whole days with day care already paid! I thought that, if I worked every minute of those five days, I could get the novel out of my head and onto the computer. It had been dammed up in there for ages, and now that I had space and a little time and no distractions, it would just flow out.

That very first week I came smack in the face of a very common (and mostly untrue) myth about writing.

Writing Should Flow. (Shouldn’t it?)

I mean, how hard can it be? I had an idea, a story arc and time. All I needed to do was turn on the tap and it would flow out. Right?

I learned, only gradually, that writing is not typing. That the romanticized image of the writer in the garret, wrapped in shawls and sipping tea, (or in skin tight jeans, hyped up on espresso, or in a moth-eaten cardigan drinking scotch straight from the bottle, you pick) typing away, the words flowing steadily from their mind to their fingers, is not the reality.

That book, Confined Space, did eventually make its way from my imagination, through my fingers, into the computer, and then out into the world. But it was in fits and starts over the course of several years of dedicated early morning morning writing sessions. I had to learn how to write, like a musician learns scales. I had to learn how to structure a mystery novel. I had to learn how to edit my own work.

You would not expect to sit down at a piano and play the solo from a concerto, along with a full orchestra in front of an audience on the first try, and yet we expect that of ourselves when writing a manuscript.

Myth, Meet Reality

In order to finally get that book, and all the others I’ve written since then, out of my head and into the computer, I’ve had to overcome what I call the inner expectation of the Myth of Flow. I’m going to tell you how I did that, because even if your inner expectation — your inner myth — is of a different flavour than mine, the answers I landed on might be helpful to you, too.

Drop the Expectations

Looking back now, it seems completely unrealistic to expect myself to write a novel in five days. I know, I know, there are stories of it being done. In fact, if you Google “How to write a novel in 5 days” you’ll come up with thousands of results, mostly from people who will happily take your money so you can learn their “method”.

Hey, I’m not dissing the 5-day method. Not at all. I’m not saying my method is the best, either. But the method I have figured out is the best for me. Me, married and with two teens at home, a half-time day job, a household to manage and writing commitments to meet. What works for me? Writing for two hours, five days a week, will net me a book every 18 months. (Longer for historical fiction, since I’m a bit obsessive about research.)

No waiting until I retire. No waiting for summers. No subliminal music to listen to as I sleep. No saving for a 5-day retreat to Sedona. (Though I have been to Sedona and it’s lovely and I do have an idea for a novel set there.)

That’s what works for me. What will work for you?

Set a Schedule

I suggest you start small and keep your expectations very low. Are you the kind of person that needs to do something every day in order for it to stick? Then maybe start with 20 minutes a day.

Do you have more time on certain days and less on others? Maybe try 45 minutes, two or three times a week.

For example: Monday, Wednesday and Friday from 6:30 am to 7:15 am.

The important thing is to find an amount of time that feels easy and stick to it. You want to meet the goal and feel like it was completely manageable. Make an agreement with yourself that once you’ve met that goal, you’ve done really well. You’re all set until the next scheduled writing session. Shower yourself with praise — give yourself the gold star! Then move on with your day.

When that little voice comes up and says, “But, but, but, but — not good enough, not long enough, you need to push and push and make this happen,” remind it that you have a schedule. Remind it that good writing happens over time and with practice. Tell it that you are not in a hurry, that you plan to enjoy this process. Tell it exactly what day and time you will be back for more writing. Then get on with your day, knowing you’ve done what you can for now.

Write During Writing Time

What should you do during your writing time? This topic deserves its own blog post, so I’ll add that to my list of things to do during my own writing time. For now, I’ll just give you a few suggestions. If you’re writing a novel, why not take one of the elements of a novel and work on it for a while, and then gradually move on and build on what you’ve written. Maybe you want to start with a few paragraphs describing the setting. Or start by interviewing a character to get to know them. If paragraphs feel intimidating, start with a list. You’ll build on it later.

Or, start with plot. What happens in this story that you are writing? Pretend it’s something that happened to you and you are texting a friend about it and write that down.

Sound easy? Good. Why not start with easy? Make it gradually more difficult. Allow yourself to be a beginner. (This is true for experienced writers too. Each novel comes without an instruction booklet.) What is most important is that you finish your writing session feeling like you’ve done something. That way, you’ll look forward to coming back, and the next time you will show up and do it again.

Expect to Edit

There’s this beautiful memoir called The Diving Bell and the Butterfly, by Jean-Dominic Bauby. Do you know it?

Bauby was editor of French Elle when a massive stroke left him with locked-in syndrome. He could think and remember perfectly clearly, but could not speak or move any part of his body except for one eyelid. He dictated his memoir to his caregiver by blinking out each letter.

In order to accomplish this, he needed to have each word, each sentence, lined up in his mind. Then he needed to remember them, and spell them out with his eyelid, one letter at a time.

Intense, right? But here is the thing, you are likely not afflicted with locked-in syndrome like Jean-Dominic Bauby. You can get your words out now, and edit them later. The expectation that the words should come out as they will appear later in the printed book is not realistic. All professional writers expect to be edited. While some writers can produce a rough draft that is close to the finished product, many cannot. It’s just not their process.

I need at least three drafts before I will even consider sharing what I’ve written. Yes, even for this blog. Editing is part of writing. Expect it, plan for it, count on it. Editing is what makes it okay for you to write during your allotted time, let what is there come out, and then move on, knowing you will have an opportunity to fix it later.

Write Now. Don’t Wait for Flow.

Sure, flow states happen. Of course they do. They are more likely to happen with practice. And while they feel good, I’m not ready to correlate good feeling writing time with good writing. Sometimes the best writing I do comes from a place of discomfort, from having to work a little harder for it, from a writing session that frankly felt pretty crappy in the moment.

Flow is not the key. The key is setting your schedule and showing up. Over and over and over. Show up. Keep your expectations low. Do your work in the moment. Expect to edit it later. Put it away and get on with your life. Then show up for your next writing session.

Until next time, I wish you regularly scheduled, tolerably pleasant writing time.

During the months of October and November (in 2020, this year of the pandemic) I am giving away four books by local BC writers to subscribers of my newsletter. You can join in on the fun by signing up here.

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[…] my last post, I talked about the importance of scheduling writing time and showing up for yourself, session after session, month after month. I encouraged you to find 20 minutes a day, or 45 […]

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